image of Alvaro Ugalde climbing hill

In Alvaro’s Words

From the June 2011 edition of Nectandra Institute’s newsletter

Parks Can Change a Nation

In 1969, as a young Costa Rican biology student, Alvaro Ugalde went to the United States for an inside view of the National Park System. By 1970 he became the second employee of Costa Rica’s newly forming park system. Looking back on this almost 40 year history of park development, Alvaro Ugalde says that the history of Costa Rica can be divided in two distinct eras, before and after the people committed to preserve the country’s unique biodiversity for generations to come.

Alvaro Ugalde is considered a founding father of the Costa Rican park system, having served as its national director twice, and as a leading figure in other important conservation organizations. In 1999, he was named an environmental leader of the century by Time Magazine.

I saw the U.S. National Park System up close for several months in 1969, invited to participate in the International Seminar on National Parks and Equivalent Reserves, a program allowing me and about 25 other selected individuals from around the world, to travel to several parks in the United States. We met with park rangers, and biologists, and concessionaries – all sorts of people in the U.S. system.

It’s not that I planned to join the park service as a career, because there was no such thing as a park service in Costa Rica at that time. But when I went home, the Costa Rican Congress had passed legislation mandating a park system be built. So I was a volunteer for six months in the first days of creating this system, and then I was hired in 1970 as the second employee of the park service.

My colleague, Mario Boza, the first employee of our park system, also went on this study trip sponsored by the U.S. National Park Service, and it gave us both the vision of a system for managing parks, operating parks, welcoming visitors, and preserving land and nature. I always think that the United States system was the window through which we saw the bigger picture.

Being biologists ourselves, we knew that protection of our country’s biodiversity should be the main purpose for our parks. Our small country – only one third of 1 percent of the world’s land mass – is home to 5 percent of all the species on Earth. People didn’t even use the word biodiversity at that time, but the many forms of tropical life in our country had been studied for decades. My teachers at the University of Costa Rica were enlightened people who gave us a sense of ecology and evolution. At the same time, though, we were seeing my country being developed very, very, very fast.

So that was our inspiration as we began to convince Costa Ricans of what had to be done to create these parks and preserve what was unique to our country. We were telling the people that we had to keep Costa Rica as Costa Rica, that a denuded country with no forests and no wildlife was not Costa Rica. Creating parks and preserves was what we should do to leave something for the future, for the children, so they would know what the country really was. It was not that hard to spread the message around the country. That tourism, as a further benefit, would come out of that effort was a secondary reason.

The history of Costa Rica could be divided between before the parks and after the parks. The country changed completely a few years after the parks were started. There is no Costa Rican now who doesn’t know about conservation, doesn’t know about the natural wealth of the country, and there are very few Costa Ricans that do not benefit from conservation efforts. We changed the course of our nation, and changed the economy of the country as we built parks and preserves. We have a new development paradigm, a different country than the one we had 40 years ago.

Before 1970, there were no protected natural areas, and most natural places were under pressure from mining, hunting, and logging, especially in places like the Osa Peninsula, the most beautiful place in the universe! That’s how I call it because it is incredibly beautiful and highly biodiverse. Since we started trying to save the Osa, we caught the attention of the world. So now, people come to see the Osa and its economy has nothing to do with mining and logging. It all has to do with nature.

Today, as our system in Costa Rica matures, we still have problems. Inside the parks, hunting is a problem, and sometimes wild fires. But, the bigger problem is on the outside of the parks. When uncontrolled development occurs in a nearby village, then we see the effects of a lack of governance, poor control, and poor coordination among ministries and other public agencies. It adds up to a bad situation with lots of buildings, water pollution, and lack of sewage treatment. These things are happening very close to some of the parks, and so that’s one of the main problems we have now, besides the looming negative effects of climate change.

We didn’t know way back that the planet was in trouble. Now, we are not ignorant anymore. The collective behavior of humanity has now provoked a collective source of dangers for the planet: global warming, the deteriorating biosphere, disappearing species, and melting poles, among other indicators.

In my country, we have flooding more often and longer periods of dry climate. The weather changes are opening up drier zones and some of the species of the lowland ecosystems are now drifting up the mountains. Toucans are living in places where they weren’t before; same thing with ants. These changes ripple through the web of life. We attempt to protect the biodiversity in the parks, but the impact is all over the nation. In Costa Rica we have done much to set aside protected areas, but they are still just islands surrounded by bigger environmental problems.

We cannot postpone our attention to these threats to the planet anymore; we cannot afford that luxury. Postponing action against global warming would mean that we don’t care about what kind of planet and what kind of life conditions we will leave to our children. But, as an optimist, I strongly believe that if we all do something – individuals, families, communities and governments – and start now, the planet will respond to our care and we will prevail.

Note from the Editor –This is excerpted from an article in eJournalUSA, US Department of State, June 2008, Vol:13 no.7. Click here to view the original article.